Divorce has so many challenges, many of which you may expect. You anticipate the challenges of adjustment to post-divorce life, life as a single parent, life with less time with your children, a new schedule, adjusting to a diminished budget, or returning to work.
However, there are challenges that you don’t expect after a divorce. In this article, I am focusing on a common issue: how to talk about your ex with your children. This question is relevant whether or not you are the one who initiated the divorce.
Recently I shared a post on Instagram. It began, “Don’t put the other parent down when you are with them” and offered suggestions. Among the comments were several that talked about how hard this can be. I am certainly not minimizing this. It can be really hard to fight the impulse to speak from anger. My hope is that this can be an aspirational goal for all divorcing and divorced parents. It is even harder when you seem to be the only one making that effort, while your ex does not. If you are so moved, you could share this article.
Let’s start with the kids. In my therapy practice, I have heard stories from parents and children about how the on-duty parent talks about the other parent. One child, Sophie (not her real name), told me that when mom “trash talked” her dad, she felt it as a personal attack. She said that she felt it “like a stab in my gut.” Sophie, like many children, suffered from physical symptoms as a result of this stress. The symptoms included stomach aches, migraines, and insomnia.
Children know that they are built from both mom and dad and that this is their core identity. When Sophie heard that “trash talk” it was as if the part of her that was her father was being rejected, or that she had to reject it herself to be loyal to her mother. She was at risk of disconnecting from a part of herself that would be buried or walled off. The internal conflict and stress that was triggered led to physical and mental health issues, as well as long-term problems in her relationships with both of her parents.
There are many reasons to consider how to talk to your kids about your ex, and most important is the immediate and long-term impact this has on your children. When you force a child to choose which parent to love, or love more, you are causing your children harm, regardless of your motivation.
Parents often want to justify what they tell their children as the “right thing to do,” or “They should know.” I am sure that your conscious intentions come from a love for your kids. You want to do what is best for them, and you believe that you know (better than your ex) what is best for them. You may feel that you love your kids more than your ex, or that he doesn’t deserve your support. You may think your ex is a bad person or parent. At some deeper level, you may feel your ex should be punished or even banished.
Parents have said to me “My kids need to know the truth” when Mom has had an affair. Parents often want the kids to know “who is to blame” for the divorce. Parents have told their children that “Dad is a lousy parent, and has no common sense.” Parents have told kids, “Your mom is a sick woman and doesn’t really love you,” or “We won’t have Christmas this year because Dad doesn’t pay enough alimony,” or “No vacation this year because your mother took my retirement.” Every time a child hears something like this his self-esteem gets chipped away.
Unfortunately, there may be another, less conscious, intention: to have the children turn away from the other parent or to love you more than the other parent. This is understandable, given the hurt, anger, grief, and fear that often results from a divorce, and these feelings can last for years. This unconscious desire comes from our “dark side,” and is the part of us that has feelings we don’t really want to acknowledge or admit. Taking steps to face these feelings will make it easier to put into perspective what your kids really need to know.
It may seem important to you, and even “morally correct,” that your kids “know who your mom really is,” or “understand that Dad is the one who caused all these problems.” However, unless there has been abandonment, serious abuse or neglect, the children’s need for a good relationship with both parents is more important than their need to know about the discord and conflict between their parents.
The children will eventually make sense of their parents’ divorce in their own time. Your highest priority is to support your kids’ adjustment to being “still a family, under two roofs.” One other important piece to consider: In my experience the parent that stirs the anger and resentment often finds it backfires as the children get older and understand the complexity of adult relationships.
So how do you talk to your kids about your ex, especially when you are struggling with anger or hurt?
1. Don’t insult your ex in front of the children.
As she drops them off at your place, it is not the right time to say, “Late again! Why are you always so late?” When you are talking with your ex on the phone, and your kids are nearby, and likely listening (that’s what kids do), it is the wrong time to say, “When are you going to get me that support check? I can’t give the kids their lunch money because you are late with that check!"
The rolling of your eyes, the big sigh, the annoyed facial expression—these communicate just as well as your words. If you get triggered, give yourself a timeout to cool off. Then think about writing a brief, business-like, matter-of-fact email to your ex with your concerns.
3. Don’t talk about finances or the legal issues of your divorce.
Children have told me that they worry about whether a parent is being “fair” with money, or what the judge has said in court. Your kids do not need to know these things and talking about them simply raises their anxiety.
4. Don’t ask the kids questions about your ex’s dating life.
Don’t ask what he’s doing for fun when the kids aren’t there. Don’t ask what your ex is buying or how she is wearing her hair. None of that is your business now that you are separated, and those questions make the kids feel like spies. It’s fine to talk about kids’ stuff, like the soccer game you missed, or the rehearsal for the school play.
5. If the kids want to share something about your ex with you, that is fine.
“Dad lets us stay up later,” or, “Mom says I can’t get a cell phone.” If they are upset with something the other parent did, help them figure out how to talk to that parent about it. If it is a major issue that affects your child’s safety, you might say, “Let me talk to dad about how you still need to wear a helmet when you're on your skateboard.”
6. If you have slipped up and said something negative or nasty about your ex, you can apologize.
(In a previous post, I wrote about apologies to children.) Something like, “It wasn’t very nice of me to say that about your mom. I know she loves you, and sometimes we just see things differently.”
7. Find ways to make positive comments about your ex.
Nancy (not her real name) shared a story with me in therapy. She had been trekking with her teenage son, and speaking with a woman they had met on the trail. In the course of the conversation, she told their companion things like “My son gets his love of nature from his dad. He taught my son the names of every plant in the mountains.” She also said, “My ex was an athlete and luckily he passed those genes on to our children.” Nancy continued her story, “Later, my son told me, ‘Mom, it felt so good to hear you say those nice things about dad. It means a lot to me to hear you say good things about him.’” This was an eye-opener for Nancy and she determined to look for opportunities to make more frequent positive comments about her ex.
This is not easy if you are still mad or hurt, but it is like giving your kids a nutritious power bar. It doesn’t exactly stick to their ribs, but it builds up their resilience and self-esteem. It allows them to embrace all parts of themselves, the parts they got from you, and the parts they got from their other parent.
© Ann Buscho, Ph.D. 2019